George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Frantz Joachim von Aken, 15 January 1794

From Frantz Joachim von Aken

Orebro in Sweden the 15th January 1794.


The 1st instant I humbly took the liberty to wait on the Congress or states of America with my Discovery of extinguishing fires;1 but fearing that either have I not rightly adressed the Letter or could there be some hindering accidents for it’s arrival, occasioned by our actual wars in Europe: I hope Sir! that You’ll graciously excuse my repeated writting to the American People, adressing my discovery [to] It’s noble Chief and humbly solliciting Him to order that it may be strictly examined and speedily published amongst His dear Countrymen. May it please You Sir, to see this done as soon as possible in order that no European surprizes your generous nation with noveltys of the Kind, as I sent to all Governments of Europe my discovery the very same day as to America, and it is possible that Luck-seekers from our Quarter might otherwise turn their ungenerous plans to your Country, after having got hold of the true extinguishing art. I beg leave to mention the reason of my suspicion: at the last great experiment I exhibited before the Royal family of this Country and all foreign ambassadors with many thousand other spectators, some ill-minded persons provided them selves with the extinguishing matter, and being informed that the late King as well as the Regent had promised me a sum of money, they made their best to prevent this and got so far in their success as to deprive me even of payment for all those expensif experiments which I by his Majesty’s the late King’s and the Regent’s commands made at Stockholm and Drottningholm2—This being done the Nation began to collect a sum in order to prevent my ruin, every one, almost, being sensibel of my unjust sufferings and at the same time thankfull for the discovery I allready in the year 1790 published.3 But then my Ennemys made known how farr they had succeeded in analysing my matter and recommended a man in NorrKoping as a fine discoverer of an art equal to mine. and tho’, very unfortunately for them, the analysis proved quite misscarried, they succeeded however in dividing the People’s opinions; wherefore after all I took the party to act as I have now done, giving up the secrecy to all Kings and Governments, only depending upon their generosity after a true and fair examination into the discovery; which examination also is the only favour I have required for to convince myself if it be possible that any better discovery of the Kind ever was mad[e].

Sir! the great Dr Franklin is no more, but General Washington lives admired and beloved of the whole world. What my discovered art of extinguishing fires looses in its reputation, for want of the former’s approbation: I certainly shall gain my self as the discoverer, if not ⟨r⟩efused your protection or totally deprived of the honour to be called usefull even to the free and generous Nation, whos Chief You are. May Heaven bless You Sir! and your country! and may America by the art of preventing and extinguishing fires hasten the more to the Power You have prepared H⟨er⟩, of making at last tremble all those nations, who ⟨e⟩ver dare to be Her enemys. The above-said art shall better be explained in the work which soon will be printed and which I beg leave to Know where to deposit.4 The last of my humble desires is that You’ll graciously pardon my way of expressing my self, being so little acquainted with the American language and I remain with the utmost Respect Sir Your most obed⟨ient⟩ serva⟨nt⟩

Frantz Joachim von Aken

LS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. The docket reads “recd. May 22.”

Swedish chemist Frantz Joachim von Aken (1738–1798) gained valuable experience at Hjorten, the pharmacy company of his father, Frans Mikael von Aken, in Örebro, before working and studying in England, 1761–62. In 1772 he took over the management of Hjorten, where he developed a chemical compound that could be used to extinguish fires and prevent their spread to nearby surfaces. Called Akenska eldsläckningsämnet, this compound was made out of potassium aluminum sulfate, iron oxide, iron sulfate, and clay. Aken demonstrated its use in Stockholm before the royal family in 1791 and 1792. On 15 Jan. 1793, he received permission to manufacture this product for public sale (“von Aken,” Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon, 32 vols. to date [Stockholm, Sweden, 1918—], 1:342–44).

1Aken’s letter to Congress of 1 Jan., which has not been identified, was laid before both the House and Senate on 2 June. It stated “the particulars of his discovery of an Art, described in the Swedish language, for extinguishing fires and preventing conflagrations, whether in war or peace, on board vessels, or in houses on fire” (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 3d Cong., 1st sess., 116, 746).

2King Gustav III (b. 1746) was assassinated in March 1792; his brother Charles (Karl; 1748–1818), duke of Södermanland, acted as regent until 1796, when Gustav IV (1778–1837) came of age. The royal family had palaces in Stockholm and the nearby village of Drottningholm.

3In 1790, Aken’s research appeared in an article entitled “Om eld-släckning; uti bref til Kungliga patriotiska sällskapets förste sekreterare” in the 16 Aug. issue of Inrikes Tidningar (Stockholm).

4Secretary of State Edmund Randolph replied to Aken on 26 June: “The President of the United States of America has requested me to inform you, that he will be very happy to see the art of extinguishing fires, carried to the perfection, which you suppose to have been discovered by you, and that the work, which you purpose to send to him, explanatory of this art, will be safely forwarded to him, thro’ the channel of Mr Pinckney, our Minister plenipotentiary in London” (DNA: RG 59, Diplomatic and Consular Instructions).

In 1794, Aken published an English version of his research as The Dreadful and Calamitous Effects of Fire, in many cases totally prevented, in all . . . checked and . . . subdued, with much less expense than by any other method known (London). GW had Aken’s Korrt Afhandling om det bästa Eldsläcknings sätt med Därtil lämpad Brand-Redskap och nödig Brand-Ordning (Stockholm, 1797) in his library at the time of his death (Griffin, Catalogue of the Washington Collection description begins Appleton P.C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends , 5).

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